Pittsburgh Pirates: Examining the Future of Mason Martin
By Noah Wright
Mason Martin is considered the Pittsburgh Pirates’ best first base prospect, but can they rely on him to be their next regular at the position?
The Pittsburgh Pirates top first base prospect is Mason Martin. He’s also one of the team’s only notable first base capable prospects.
The major league options for first base aren’t that broad. The Pittsburgh Pirates re-signed Yoshi Tsutugo to a low-risk deal, and Michael Chavis also has experience at first. With the designated hitter coming to the National League, their limited options became even thinner. That leaves Martin with one major question; can the team rely on him to be their next first baseman?
Martin started to appear on prospect radars after 2019. In 556 plate appearances, Martin batted .256/.351/.558 with a .406 wOBA, and 161 wRC+. Martin showed some insane power. He had a .304 isolated slugging percentage and 35 home runs. This came with a healthy 12% walk rate. The catch is he also struck out 30.2% of the time. This was between Low-A and High-A.
Martin took massive steps back in 2021. He mostly spent the year at Altoona, where he batted .242/.318/.481 with a .342 wOBA and 113 wRC+. After posting an OPS above .900 in 2019, it dipped below .800 at Altoona. His wRC+ dropped 48% from 2019 to 2021. For reference, the difference between Martin’s 2019 season and 2021 season in terms of wRC+ is the same as the difference between Fernando Tatis Jr. and Andrew McCutchen in 2021.
Still, that’s solid production. With the amount of hitting talent the Pittsburgh Pirates have in the system, a first baseman who can put up 110 wRC+ is much better than adequate. So why is his future with the Pirates still a massive question mark? It’s his strikeouts.
His strikeout rate was 34.2% at Altoona (34.3% once you factor in his 27 plate appearances at Triple-A Indianapolis. He didn’t strike out the most among minor league batters, but he still had the 13th highest mark among those with at least 400 plate appearances.
Ok, so he strikes out a lot. So do many major league players. The thing is, many of the players who regularly strike out ~30%+ in the majors didn’t strike out that much in the minors. Aaron Judge had a 24.8% K-rate. Miguel Sano posted a sub-35% strikeout rate in 2021 for the first time in his career and had an insane 38.6% strikeout rate from 2018 through 2020. His minor league K-rate? 26.2%. Javier Baez? 25.4%. Tyler O’Neill? 28%. Tatis Jr.? 25.4%.
Many didn’t strike out at Martin levels, aside from Joey Gallo. However, for every Joey Gallo, there are dozens of Matt Davidson’s. Gallo is also the only minor league batter I could find who had a 30%+ strikeout rate during their minor league career since 2010, and to have a wRC+ of at least 100 in the major leagues. He’s also just one the 3-4 players that also played more than 200 MLB games despite having such a high strikeout rate.
Another problem that Martin faces is his decreasing walk rate. He walked just 8.1% of the time at Altoona with a 7.8% overall rate. That’s a massive departure from his 2019 mark or any other season. Martin has never walked less than 10% of the time, and it’d be the only way he could offset a 30%+ strikeout rate. At least when Gallo was striking out well over 30% of the time in the minor leagues, he walked nearly 15% of the time.
Martin has upper deck power. When he makes contact, he makes loud contact. But the issue is he doesn’t make contact often. According to FanGraphs, his 57% contact rate was “firmly in the yikes” zone. That makes his future with the Pirates very hazy. Until he can prove he can make consistent contact in the upper levels of the minor leagues or massively improve his walk rate, I don’t think the Pirates can say that Martin is their next first baseman with confidence.